Kuster: Votes For Trump-Backed Immigration Bills Part Common Ground, Part 2018 Strategy

Jul 11, 2017

Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster speaks at a town hall in Nashua
Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR

After last fall’s election, New Hampshire's Second District Congresswoman, Ann McLane Kuster, said she hoped to find areas where should could agree with President Trump.

"Absolutely I’ll be looking for common ground. Paid family leave that’s one that I think is important, and obviously infrastructure investment, I think is very significant for the economy. And I think there will be others."

One of those, it turns out, is Trump’s signature issue of immigration. So far this year, Kuster is among a minority of Democrats in the House to support some Trump-backed GOP bills that aim to crack down on illegal immigration.

Kuster’s votes are angering some Democrats, but Kuster sees them as good politics.

When Kuster opened the floor to questions at her town hall meeting in Nashua Monday, her support for what’s known as Kate’s Law got plenty of attention.

Margaret Wheeler of Windham begged Kuster to rethink her position on the GOP bill, which targets criminal undocumented immigrants but would also stiffen penalties for immigrants without criminal records who repeatedly attempt to cross the U.S. border illegally.

“This city, I know, your city, is full of people, they won’t leave their homes, because they are afraid of being deported and never being able to come back,” Wheeler said.

"So I am opposed to what the Trump administration ran on, and what they are doing to discourage people from staying here. And I want to just balance welcoming people and keeping the community safe," Kuster responded.

Kuster also seems to want to strike a political balance.

The same day she supported Kate’s Law, she also opposed a separate Trump-backed bill aimed at crimping the flow of federal aid to so-called sanctuary cities. But as one of just twenty-four Democrats to back Kate’s Law, Kuster’s vote was conspicuous – and frustrating - for liberals.

Lynn Tramonte is with the D.C.-based pro-immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice.

"We should not be giving any inch to Donald Trump on immigration, and the fact that Democrats are even considering these to be tough votes, I think is outrageous."

But UNH political scientist Dante Scala sees a logic in Kuster’s positioning. The make-up of her district, which besides Nashua and Concord, also includes rural Sullivan and Coos counties where Trump, and the issues he championed, were popular last November.

“On immigration, I think it’s like she has to walk carefully, 'cause I suspect among her constituents, I think there might be significant polarization on that particular issue.”

When asked about what’s driving her recent immigration votes - Kuster also split with most of her caucus to back a Republican bill to relax hiring standards for U.S. Customs and Border Agents - she’s quick to cast them as tactical, a way to outmaneuver Republicans looking toward 2018.

“They are using votes to set people up who are in swing states. And I’m not going to set myself up for an ad, but I think we should have comprehensive immigration reform.”

Kuster claims that’s more doable than most think. As for the bills she’s voting for now, Kuster says people should see them for what she expects them to be, meaningless.

“They are not going anywhere. They are not going to be taken up in the Senate. None of these things are going to happen.”

This may or may not be persuasive to many of Kuster’s core supporters.

Longtime Democratic activist Sylvia Gale said she didn’t like what she heard from Kuster on Kate’s Law in Nashua, but she didn’t say she was shocked.

“Is it about reelection? Perhaps. Is it about financial support to get reelected? Perhaps. I like to think the people I believe in, are not that shallow. But I think that’s a political reality in this state and many other places.”

That voters, particularly Democrats, will accept that reality, is what Kuster seems to be banking on.